The run up to the French Open was dominated by the news of Andre Agassi taking over as Novak Djokovic’s coach. They were quickly deemed the ‘dream team’. Djokovic had let go of Boris Becker the previous season and now hired Agassi, the first player who made the return a weapon: a skill that was further polished and perfected by Djokovic. To be fair, any team that combines the might of 20 Grand Slams (12 for Djokovic and eight for Agassi) can’t be too bad.
But Djokovic needs more than stardust off a renowned coach to blink away his problems.
And he had many in the third round match against Diego Schwartzman.
Djokovic was once again shaky, error-prone and anxious during his 5-7, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 win over the Argentine. He let slip a 4-1 lead in the first set. On serve at 5-5, he pulled a regulation backhand wide to go down 0-40 and then followed it up with a drop shot that fell ridiculously short of the net. The 24-year-old Schwartzman, playing in his maiden round 3 in a Grand Slam, held on to the opportunity to close out the set 7-5.
The two had played only once before — at the 2014 US Open first round when Djokovic had emerged a comfortable 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 winnner. But the Argentine, who seems to hit every shot with every ounce of energy in his 5’7 frame, was up for a fight this time. More likely, Djokovic was letting him step in and dictate rallies because his shots just lacked the depth and bite.
Not many could have predicted Djokovic’s alarming slide after winning the 2016 French Open and finally completing his career Slam, mainly because his game is rooted in diligence. He had been relentless in his pursuit even when faced with colossal rivals like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. To beat them, he had to stitch up all the holes in his game and then find ways to hurt theirs. He learnt to be more precise than Federer and built himself up to be more physical than Nadal. He was a slave to his art, and it had paid dividends.
But that intensity let up once he won in Paris last year. His robotic brilliance has now given way to human slip-ups. On Friday, against Schwartzman, Djokovic reeled off a total of 55 unforced errors, 34 of those came off his more-solid backhand side. At best, the defending champion was looking like an impostor. At worst, he seemed completely disinterested. Ever since he emerged onto the tennis scene as a wide-eyed teenager, Djokovic has always had an edge to him. Too many times now, he looks like he is going through the motions. Flat.
With his familiar massive entourage missing in Paris, Agassi was cutting a lonely figure in the players’ box. Having finished his media commitments, Agassi was back on court just in time to see Djokovic serve out the second set. But his forehead was becoming increasingly furrowed as the Serb dug himself into a hole again in the third. Schwartzman, serving for the set at 5-3, saved four break points. He then hit a serve wide, pulled Djokovic out and finished off the point by drilling a forehand into the open court. The Serb then put a forehand long to concede the game and third set.
It was Djokovic’s physical conditioning that saw him prevail over his fading opponent in the fourth and fifth sets. The Serb slapped a forehand winner to seal the match, did a fist pump in celebration and then pursed his lips. There was no joy in victory. Djokovic had just about survived the day against a spirited, but not great, opponent.
The match, though, raised more questions than provided any answers.
Last season there were murmurs that there was trouble brewing in his personal life. Becker suggested that Djokovic’s work rate had dropped off after winning the title in Roland Garros. But only Djokovic knows, or ought to know, the whole truth. His problems, whether emotional or physical, are entirely self-made, and so should the solution.
Djokovic had parted ways with Becker in 2016 and then in May fired his entire staff, including coach Marjan Vajda with whom he has worked with since 2006, in an attempt at “shock therapy”. But it is unlikely that Agassi’s arrival alone with shock him out of stupor. The American great has, at the moment, committed too little time to Djokovic’s cause to help him retain that intensity and focus. They have been working together since last week and as great and wise Agassi is, he is no miracle worker.
But maybe, like he motivated himself to reach the pinnacle of tennis again, right here at Roland Garros, he can help Djokovic see the light again. It is not those who have his ear, but the voice inside his head that matters.
Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 12:43 PM